SALT LAKE CITY – President Donald Trump’s rare move to shrink two large national monuments in Utah triggered another round of outrage among Native American leaders who vowed to take the fight to court to preserve protections for land they consider sacred.
Environmental and conservation groups and a coalition of tribes began filing lawsuits Monday that ensure that Trump’s announcement is far from the final chapter in the yearslong battle over public lands. The court cases are likely to drag on for years, maybe even into a new presidency.
Trump decided to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by about 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half.
It earned him cheers from Republican leaders in Utah who lobbied him to undo protections by Democratic presidents that they considered overly broad.
Conservation groups called it the largest elimination of protected land in American history.
The Navajo Nation was one of five tribes that formed a coalition and spent years lobbying former President Barack Obama to declare Bears Ears a monument to preserve ancient cliff dwellings and an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites. Native Americans visit the area to perform ceremonies, collect herbs and wood for medicinal and spiritual purposes, and do healing rituals.
The coalition of the Hopi, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation sued Monday to challenge the Bears Ears reduction. Two lawsuits have been filed to try to block the Grand Staircase decision.
Earthjustice’s suit called it an abuse of the president’s power and said it endangers archaeological and cultural resources. The organization is representing eight conservation groups. Another lawsuit from three groups including the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology makes similar claims.
Meanwhile, two Utah congressmen said Tuesday that they will introduce legislation to create a modest national park at Grand Staircase and allow Native Americans and local residents manage the land in Bears Ears.
Trump, in a speech at Utah’s Capitol with the governor and other politicians, said the state’s lands should not be managed by “very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. Your timeless bond with the outdoors should not be replaced with the whims of regulators thousands and thousands of miles away.”
Utah’s mostly Republican officials have lobbied Trump for months, saying the monuments closed off the areas to energy development and other access.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said only Congress, not the president, has the power to reduce a national monument, which the tribal coalition argued in its lawsuit.
Additional legal challenges were expected from environmental groups and outdoor clothing company Patagonia.
Outside Trump’s announcement Monday, roughly 3,000 protesters lined up near the state Capitol. They chanted, “Lock him up!”
A smaller group gathered in support, including some who said they favor potential drilling or mining there that could create jobs. Bears Ears has no oil or gas, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters, though Grand Staircase-Escalante has coal.
Bears Ears, created nearly a year ago, will be reduced to 315 square miles. Grand Staircase-Escalante will be reduced from nearly 3,000 square miles to 1,569 square miles.
Both were among a group of 27 monuments that Trump ordered Zinke to review this year.